Monday, April 17, 2006

Understanding Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin on the Lord’s Supper (Part One)

In my discussions with Lutherans, this is one of the major disagreements between us. Yet, how many actually understand exactly what Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin held on the Lord’s Supper, where they agreed, and where they disagreed?

The following is based on my notes from a class on Reformation history.

The Most Controversial Issue of the Early Reformation
The Lord's Supper was the most controversial and most divisive issue in the 16th century. It was the most emotionally charged issue. The reasons why:The issue touched the common people- it wasn’t an abstract issue. The minute you begin to change the worship service and the mass and how it was conducted, the lives of common people are involved . The changing of the actual practice of the Mass became a crucial moment in the beginning of the Reformation.

Common people had been convinced the Mass was at the heart of their salvation. Preaching was less important, while the mass was primary. The Mass took place on a high alter. Two great miracles were held to take place on this altar:

1. Transubstantiation (bread and wine miraculously changed into the body and blood of Christ); the bread and wine were no longer present. The substances change, only the accidens remains (this was an Aristotelian distinction).

2. The second miracle was the sacrifice of Christ. In some sense Christ is sacrificed anew for the turning away of the wraith of God and for the covering of sins.

The bread at times was put on display (as the body of Christ) in a showcase, where people could come and worship Christ.

Taking the elements meant that one was literally receiving the body and blood of Christ, and this made a difference in you: Christ in you, the hope of glory. (They thus, “had a personal relationship with Christ”!).

The Eucharist had been theologically defined at the 4th Lateran council (1215). The council defined 7 sacraments, and transubstantiation. This made it easy for Roman Catholics to respond to the Protestant challenges on the mass: they can point to an ecumenical council’s ruling. The Reformers were much stronger in the area of Justification, where no council had yet ruled.

Because the Reformers held to Sola Scriptura, they found the issue of the Lord’s Supper important because it was instituted by Jesus Christ, and it needed to be understood faithfully and fully, when he said, “this is my body.”

Areas Where All The Reformers Agreed About the Lord’s Supper ( a negative statements of belief against the Roman Catholic Church by the Reformers)

1. Rome had not given enough stress to the importance of faith. In Rome's position, as long as you don’t oppose the grace that works through the sacraments, one can receive grace. This is called “ex opere operato”= “by the work it has been worked”. As long as you don’t resist the grace of God that comes through the sacraments, that grace will be efficacious and productive. The Reformers say a loud “no!” to this. In order to receive the benefits of the sacraments, they held you must receive them by faith. If you don’t come to them with faith, you receive nothing.

2. All the Reformers rejected the concept of a Eucharistic sacrifice. They all held this was a primary error. The Eucharist is not something we offer to God, but God offers to us. We are not doing a good work to please God, but he is offering something to help us.

3. The error of Transubstantiation: what happens on the alter is not a miracle of changing the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Christ in the form of the bread should not be worshipped.

The Positions of Luther and Zwingli on The Lord’s Supper

The Reformers differ due to their different perspectives.

LUTHER: We are saved not by our work but God’s. Our works of righteousness will not save us, but God’s work of righteousness in Christ will. This influences Luther in all his work.

Luther evaluates the medieval teaching on the Lord’s Supper: he sees the central error of Rome as the Eucharistic sacrifice, because it teaches that we offer Christ again to God, and that by our offering God is pleased with us and blesses us. Luther condemns this as works righteousness, and therefore a denial of the gospel.

Luther says we must understand the Lord’s Supper as something God does for us. God in this sacrament gives us a gift: Christ himself. Therefore Christ is present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine.” When we receive the elements we literally receive Christ. This isn’t transubstantiation, but an elaboration of what is in the promise of God: it’s better understood as Consubstantiation: the substance of the body of Christ is received with the substance of the bread, which builds us up in faith and commitment to Christ.

Ulrich Zwingli shared similar concerns with Luther on the Lord’s Supper, in that both knew the Roman Catholic concept was in error. Luther’s position was based on a critique of the Eucharistic sacrifice, which he understood to be ultimately works righteousness. This was what Luther thought to be Rome’s key error. Zwingli though saw transubstantiation as the key error of Rome, but agreed with Luther on Rome’s error of works righteousness.

Zwingli’s position against the Roman Catholic Church:
The idea of a repeated sacrifice of the actual Christ was abhorrent to Zwingli. He reasoned, “you couldn’t have a sacrifice of Christ if Christ were not present, therefore the primary error of the Roman Catholic Church is transubstantiation.” Therefore, do away with transubstantiation, because it leads rapidly to idolatry. The error of idolatry is to focus on earthly things, not heavenly things: this was the error of the medieval church, it calls to bread, rather than to Christ, it calls to the alter and the actions of priests, instead of to heaven and the action of Christ. Therefore get rid of the idea that Christ is miraculously called down to the alter and re-sacrificed. Zwingli stressed the ascension of Christ: Christ is risen, ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father. Christ said he was going to depart, therefore transubstantiation is idolatrous and a violation of the Apostles Creed.

Zwingli’s position on the Lord’s Supper
Zwingli held the Lord’s Supper is a memorial; a pledge of allegiance. What is received in the supper is by faith, therefore let’s exercise our faith: remember Christ and rest in his accomplished work. Through the Lord’s Supper let’s testify to the world that we belong to Him. Zwingli saw the Lord’s Supper as a “wedding ring”: the wedding ring isn’t the marriage itself; it is only a reminder of a relationship that exists.



Robbie said...

This is going to be an excellent series, James! Would you elaborate on something,please? You write:

"1. Transubstantiation (bread and wine miraculously changed into the body and blood of Christ); the bread and wine were no longer present. The substances change, only the accidens remains (this was an Aristotelian distinction)."

Every time I see Aristotle I think mainly of a Greek pagan teacher. Would the this make Transubstantiation pagan in thought? I know it is probably a dumb question (I'm fullof such questions), but a dumber way to handle it would be to not ask at all. If so, I keep thinking of your discussion with Fr. Joe. Wouldn't that mean that the pagan thought was on his side of the field and not Calvin's?

Thanks for your answer.


James Swan said...

Hi Robbie-

Aristotle made his way into the church- his logic and philosophy became tools used for doing theology. Aristotle's philosophical tools of "accidens" and "substance" became the way to understand the Lord's Supper. As simply as possible, Substance is an "essence of thing" what makes it what it is in and of itself, while the accidens is the way it appears.

"The formula for transubstantiation is this: In the miracle of the Mass the substance of bread and wine changes (trans-, moves “across”) into the substance of the body and blood of Christ, but the accidens of bread and of wine remains the same. (Sproul, Not a Chance, 110)

The Book of Concord states:

As far as the Latin words substantia and accidens are concerned, they are not biblical terms and, besides, they are unknown to the common man. They should therefore not be employed in sermons delivered to common, unlearned people, but simple folk should be spared them.

From Sproul:

Both Luther and Calvin rejected the Roman Catholic view of the Lord’s Supper, the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation. This doctrine teaches that in the miracle of the mass the bread and wine are supernaturally transformed into the body and blood of Christ. This transformation, however, is unique. It is not complete because the changed bread and wine still look like bread and wine, taste like bread and wine, and smell like bread and wine. To the senses no change is apparent. Yet the church asserts that the bread and wine have become the veritable body and blood of Christ. The consecrated host is kept in the tabernacle on the altar and is acknowledged by the participants’ genuflections. At times the participants elevate the host and give obeisance to it.

To explain the disparity between appearance and reality, Rome makes use of the concept of transubstantiation. Borrowing from metaphysical categories used by Aristotle, Rome distinguishes between an entity’s substance and its accidens, an object’s external, perceivable qualities. These qualities indicate what something appears to be on the surface. Beneath the surface or beyond the physical level is a thing’s real substance, its very essence.

For Aristotle the accidens of an object always flow from its essence. A tree always has the accidens of a tree because the accidens flow out of the tree’s essence or treeness. One cannot have the substance of a tree and the accidens of an elephant.
The mass actually involves a double miracle. The substance of the bread and wine are changed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood while the accidens of bread and wine remain. The substance of Christ’s body and blood are now present without the accidens of his body and blood, while the accidens of bread and wine are present without the substance of bread and wine.

Sproul, R. (2000, c1997). Grace unknown : The heart of reformed theology (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

James Swan said...


speaking of Fr. Joseph- he appears to have vanished from cyber-space. His accidens though are still visible on the CARM boards.